In Defense of Indirection

In Defense of Indirection

Eric Anderson

Thomas Jefferson put that wonderful phrase “the pursuit of happiness” into the Declaration of Independence. Though both the man and the document deserve our reverence, it is, alas, a most misleading phrase.

We humans don’t find happiness by pursuing it. Happiness, instead, sneaks up upon us, catching us by surprise while we are focused on something else.

We all know people, deeply unhappy people in fact, who focus solely on their own happiness. Or what about those pathetic, friendless souls who talk all the time about finding friends? There’s an important principle here: the principle of indirection. Sometimes the long way around is better than the direct approach.

“I want my students to love me,” a teacher might say. “I want to be their best friend.” But think of the teachers you loved, who became your close friends. There was probably some other goal that came first—love of learning, perhaps, commitment to certain virtues, pursuit of excellence. You only came to love the Greek teacher later, as a wonderful byproduct of a shared discipline.

“I want an emotionally satisfying spiritual experience,” a Christian might declare. But if you sit in a worship service as a critic or a connoisseur, evaluating the “performance,” will you hear any voice other than your own? Is the Holy Ghost likely to shake the house? In this case, directly demanding a certain state of mind is unlikely to produce it.

Somebody has written a book with the strange title Obliquity, making the point that “our goals are best achieved indirectly.” The author notes that a business that focuses only on profits is, paradoxically, not likely to be profitable. According to the review in the Wall Street Journal, “Consumers will purchase from your business, or employees will go the extra mile to contribute to your success, only if they believe that you care about their interests.”

I can see all sorts of applications of this principle to Southwestern, and to Christian higher education in general. Why do faculty and staff make such breathtaking sacrifices to work here? Why do students choose this school over any other? The answers involve indirection and taking the long way around.

We don’t create “School Spirit” by pursuing it. We don’t foster real “diversity” by endless talk. We gain a good reputation by many small right choices, not by manipulating our image.

Our survival, in the end, is not based on our determination to survive.

Indeed, the quickest way not to survive would be to announce that we are willing to do anything, even change our loyalties, to stay in business. In short, we must stand for something more important than mere survival.

Embracing obliquity, we are more likely to find success and happiness and survival than by directly pursuing these things.

Maybe we need to rewrite Jefferson to say that men (and institutions) have a God-given right to “life, liberty, and the indirect discovery of happiness.”

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